Words by Taylor Thomas of Thomas Endurance Coaching
It’s been the long-held opinion of many cyclists that “base miles” are the clear choice when it comes to how to spend the winter training months. The thought is that these LSD (Long Slow Distance) rides will help to build an athlete’s aerobic base, but when we understand why these rides exist, and what their purpose really is, it becomes clear that for most time-crunched athletes these may just be a waste of time.
What’s the Deal with Base Miles?
The thought behind a traditional approach to winter base miles isn’t totally unfounded. The concept is pretty simple. Aerobic base training is supposed to allow for the accumulation of a large volume of work that will, in turn, result in increased capillary and mitochondrial density. Mitochondria are important because the more there are, and the bigger they are, the better your body becomes at breaking down carbohydrates and fat for energy. The more your body can do this efficiently the higher pace/power you’re able to maintain. So, in theory, this would be the desired and perfect outcome of endurance training. However, there’s one big breakdown in this notion…
We Don’t Have Unlimited Time!
It’s likely that as a working endurance athlete with hundreds of other responsibilities you’re already maxed out as far as weekly training hours go. Assuming you can’t create any more time during the week, the idea of reducing the total workload, while maintaining the same volume, will only serve to provide less training adaptation. When base training works it’s because athletes have the extra time to dramatically increase their total volume, which then creates an influx in the total workload. When available time is constant, the reduced intensity only serves to equal reduced training stimulus.
“Base” Probably Isn’t What You Need
Most athletes focused on “traditional” disciplines don’t need a massive aerobic base. The limiter is most likely how long they can sustain efforts at Lactate Threshold and VO2 Max. Adaptations in these areas can be seen with lower volume and focused intervals written to the specific needs of the athlete. Sustained intervals lasting from 10-20 minutes will help develop LT, and shorter intervals lasting anywhere from 1-5 minutes will strengthen VO2 Max. These focused and individualized sessions mixed with the right amount of endurance work and rest will elicit race-ready fitness much more accurately than training long at moderate intensities. If you’re an athlete that’s focused on less traditional disciplines that last for 4+ hours then this type of training is still effective. The long training days required to prepare for these types of events are very often more about the mental preparation for long days than the physical. To get the most out of your already tight schedule the focus should still be on highlighting specificity with tailored interval work versus long miles that don’t lead to fitness.
While the social and community aspect of the classic winter base ride has a place on the schedule from time to time, it’s not the most effective use of an already well-adapted and time-crunched athlete. Reducing workload will only serve to provide less training stimulus and thus less fitness. If you’re working within a set amount of time per week replace your long slow rides with focused work that develops your limiters during the winter months. This increase in intensity will develop the vital tools needed for race day.
Taylor Thomas is the founder and head coach of Thomas Endurance Coaching (TEC) and has more than a decade of experience in the endurance sports industry as an athlete, coach, team organizer, writer, and podcast host. TEC provides expert level coaching to athletes of all ability levels and specializes in both a scientific and metrics-based approach to endurance sports. They guide athletes in a wide variety of disciplines ranging from running and cycling to mountaineering. For more information on their personal coaching and training plan options visit http://www.thomasendurancecoaching.com/. Also, listen to their top-rated podcast Endurance Minded everywhere you get your podcasts.